Advice from a Certified Hand Therapist: Mirror Therapy for Chronic Pain

Chronic pain that does not respond to conventional treatment can be frustrating for both the person with the pain and the team of people trying to help alleviate the pain. You may have heard of mirror therapy, but are unsure of what it is or who can benefit. To answer these questions, I consulted Susan Stralka, PT, DPT, MS. Susan has many years of experience treating patients with chronic pain and has lectured around the world on this topic.

What is mirror therapy?

Mirror therapy is a rehabilitation technique that uses the mirror image of a non-painful limb to retrain the brain about its perception of a painful limb. The non-painful limb (such as a hand or foot) is placed in front of a mirror and the painful limb is placed behind the mirror out of sight. The person is asked to look at the mirror image and move the non-painful limb. The image in the mirror looks like the painful limb moving without pain. Often patients don’t want to move the painful limb. By observing the image in the mirror, the brain is retrained to think that the limb is normal again.

How does mirror therapy work? 

Mirror therapy uses a mirror to create a reflective image or illusion of the painful limb. The image retrains the brain to think that the limb is normal and now they can move it. It is important to make sure the image in the mirror looks exactly like the painful limb, which is hidden behind the mirror. For example, to achieve this exact image, both hands must look alike. Jewelry and rings must be removed and tattoos must be covered. The non-painful  hand in front of the mirror moves very slowly and gently. This creates the image that the painful limb can move again without symptoms. As the person improves, both hands can be moved simultaneously.

Who can benefit ?

As early as 1995, neurologist Vilayanur Ramachandran used mirror therapy for amputees suffering from phantom limb pain. Many neurological disorders such as strokes and intractable pain have been treated with mirror therapy. Mirror therapy can be utilized to decrease pain and improve movement in individuals who think they can’t move or don’t want to move. Both orthopedic injuries and neurological injuries can  be treated with mirror therapy to retrain the brain.

Who can help with mirror therapy?

For conditions involving the hand or arm, go see a physical or occupational therapist trained in hand therapy.

For even more information, watch this video:

Stacy Hite is a Certified Hand Therapist and a member of the American Society of Hand Therapists.